Burned Out or Fired Up: How to Create the Right Kind of Spark

How do we create places of motivation, engagement, and inspiration?

Image courtesy of Steelcase.

Looking for advice on how to bring your whole self to work? You’ll have no trouble finding ample ideas, recommendations, and advice. There are plenty of voices in the mix (mine is one of them [i]).

But with all the fervor, sometimes it’s helpful to find solutions by looking at the opposite of what you’re seeking to solve. It’s a ‘counterpoint’ approach. What happens when we’re not feeling rewarded or fulfilled in our work – when the birds aren’t singing and the daisies aren’t blooming in our work-life?

I learned about burnout in my first job out of college. A senior friend and colleague – self-described as ‘crispy’ – was figuring out how to move forward. Here’s what we knew at the time (and what has been reinforced over the years): Burnout is more prevalent when people feel a loss of control, feel ineffective, treated unfairly, or feel disconnected from others. Burnout tends to start with exhaustion and quickly migrate to shame or doubt about the ability to get things done well. It develops to cynicism and finally a feeling of helplessness. It tends to happen when the stress meter has really topped out.

Image courtesy of Steelcase.

If we can find ways to reduce the conditions for burnout, we are creating the conditions for its inverse – people who can bring their whole selves to work and who are motivated, engaged, and inspired.

How do we create places of motivation, engagement, and inspiration? We focus on good care, good information, good work, good relationships and a good future.

  • Good Care is a workplace experience that communicates how the company cares about employees. In burnout, people tend to feel isolated and over-extended. A workplace that demonstrates caring tends to foster the conditions for a more positive experience. This can happen in small but significant ways. As an example, our company provides snacks in the café each afternoon. Every day between 2pm-3:30pm, there is a mass migration of people heading to the café for a quick snack. It’s nothing fancy – goldfish crackers, protein bars, nut/fruit mix – but it sends a message about our importance as employees. Even better yet, it causes people to come together (in the common pursuit of food!). Previously, we offered snacks in work areas, rather than the work café, but changed to the café in order to spur the connections that occur when a wide diversity of people from multiple departments come together. Bigger things also matter in ‘good care’. Childcare, exercise options, respite rooms, or walking paths are examples. The bottom line here is that the company is demonstrating it cares, it’s paying attention to the employee experience, and it’s taking action to make it as positive as possible.
  • Good Information. The deafening sound of silence after the completion of a large successful project or, on the other hand, the lack of corrective suggestions when a task has been less than stellar can create the kind of place where burnout takes hold. The antidote is to build an environment of regular feedback and recognition. Places where leaders are present and accessible (physically and virtually) and where information is readily available via both digital and analog means are examples. They help to create a sense of openness and sharing where people feel more empowered and in control because they can act on the information available to them and make informed decisions.
  • Good Work. People are more likely to face burnout when they feel their work doesn’t matter, when they feel treated unfairly, or micromanaged. Create the conditions for motivation and inspiration by ensuring people are clear about the broader purpose for their work and how it is important in the value chain. Every company has meaningless tasks that have become a norm over time. Reduce as many of this as possible, and remove the less necessary rote tasks (administrivia) from people’s plates when you can. And – of course – provide spaces for people to do both focused and collaborative work effectively and to accomplish it both alone and with others.
Image courtesy of Steelcase.
  • Good Relationships. A hallmark of burnout is feeling disconnected from friends, the community, and colleagues. The best workplaces feature spaces where people can connect, share ideas and rub elbows. They are places with community volunteer programs, mentorship programs and where the culture allows for plenty of relationship-building across hierarchical or department boundaries. In addition, hold people accountable for both their results and their interactions. Good relationships are challenging to build in an environment of negativity. A colleague recently joined a company where there was a senior leader who was tremendously successful at driving results, but was a tyrant. His oppressive approach became the norm for his team as well, and the negatively spread through the culture. Until he and his team were held accountable for the ‘how’ of their work, the company was captive to a culture that seemingly valued that kind of behavior.
  • Good Future. Rather than the helplessness and hopelessness of burnout, a key element of inspiration is a future focus. Keep people motivated and fired up – rather than burned out – by regularly sharing the vision, compelling them about where the company is going, and paying attention to their own career growth and role in that future. Ensure spaces highlight the vision, mission, customer stories, and employee achievements so this future is a part of the ambient environment.

I’ve often reflected on why it was that those early lessons on burnout stuck with me so long. Perhaps, they were harbingers of future times when I had to make changes of my own. We all have ups and downs, and reflecting on a counterpoint can be a helpful way to get back to the (work)place where the birds are singing and everything is coming up daisies.


[i] Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations (Bibliomotion/Taylor & Francis, 2014)

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